NSW

Asbestos exposure increasingly happening at home, research shows

Overall rates of asbestos-related cancers may have slowed, but exposure to the toxic material is increasingly occurring at home, according to a report in the Australian Medical Journal.

The report, to be published on Tuesday, said patterns of exposure had changed since the importation and production of asbestos was banned in 2004.

A common source of home insulation in the 1960s and 1970s, asbestos is known to cause asbestosis and deadly cancers such as malignant mesothelioma.

Previously, exposure was worst for miners and builders working directly with the material but cases are increasingly occurring at home, according to researcher Arthur Musk from Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth. 

New cases included tenants and residents of affected homes, particularly those who attempted to remove asbestos insulation without proper protection, Professor Musk said.

While the potential exposure to asbestos in homes is "nothing like the occupational exposure of tradesmen", Professor Musk warned that any exposure was always a risk.

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"The reason asbestos was so good in industry ... was that it's indestructible," Professor Musk said. 

"Once the fibres get down into the lung, they don't go away. So the risk of getting mesothelioma continues to increase for 30 or 40 years after you've breathed in the stuff." 

According to the report, new cases of malignant mesothelioma have "levelled off" at 50 cases per million men each year, while the rate is tenfold lower for women in Australia.

Professor Musk said doctors must remain "vigilant" in their diagnosis, as often symptoms of asbestos-related cancers are indistinguishable from smoking-related lung cancers.

"As exposure to asbestos in the community declines, it will be increasingly unlikely that clinicians will be mindful of the condition and diligent in taking an asbestos exposure history," Professor Musk said. 

"It's only now that we are getting asbestos out of our environment that the rates [of malignant mesothelioma] are going to go down." 

In July last year, the ACT government released a list of 1022 properties affected by asbestos insulation during the 1960s and 1970s, known as "Mr Fluffy".

The potentially deadly insulation may have affected up to 30,000 people who owned or rented the Canberra houses.

Government-funded demolitions of the affected houses began in mid-2015.

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